Every Day Leadership: managers stepping up to the crisis

20 March 2020 -

Every Day Leaders Stepping up to Crisis

Being furloughed is an opportunity to develop your personal and professional skills.

Matthew Rock

Thursday 24 April

To west Yorkshire for a virtual chat with James Bowman, a Chartered Manager who works for an organisation called Prescribing Support Services. James’ role is providing and managing clinical pharmacists who are deployed in more than 130 GPs’ surgeries across the UK. In normal times, these pharmacists take the burden of medication management away from doctors in surgeries.

Right now most of these pharmacists have been redeployed into retail pharmacists, so James is currently furloughed. He’s using the time to invest in his personal and professional development. He’s just done a couple of university modules on organisational behaviours, as well as his Lean 6 Sigma Yellow Belt. As a volunteer for the charity Team Rubicon UK, he’s also topped up his training in disaster recovery support. “And the house and the garden are looking pretty good!” he laughs.

Talking to managers and leaders who have been furloughed, you sense their frustration. These are people who are used to working, to getting things done. Even though they’re out of the loop right now, they’ll be picking up on how things are going back in the workplace and will feel they could be contributing. But the government’s furlough scheme is rigid and insists that people cannot work during the period of furlough. There has been some lobbying to persuade the government to allow furloughed workers to work part-time, but this hasn’t been adopted. If you’re furloughed, you must not work.

“If I’m honest, I’m chomping at the bit,” James admits, but for now he and thousands of others have got to bide their time. Many are using that time to develop themselves and update their skills; others are doing voluntary work. I reckon they’ll be seriously motivated when they do get back to work….

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A further three-week lockdown is now confirmed. Captain Tom Moore has completed his 100 laps of the garden (raising £15m+ in the process) and around the UK managers are knuckling down and plugging gaps where they can...

Thursday 16 April

As a construction-based manufacturer, County Durham-based Finnmark Sauna is still up and running, albeit with a skeleton staff. There is one joiner working flat out to meet the orders that the firm needs to meet. All other on-site jobs – from delivery and logistics to sales and safety – are pretty much being handled by the management team. It’s an example of how managers across the country are stepping up and taking on more jobs to keep things moving.

There are just two people working in the company’s office at the moment – the company’s director, and the operations manager, Matthew Hulbert. Some staff, such as the design team, are working remotely.

“We’ve been doing the day-to-day running of things. We’re looking after the security of the site, making sure that orders are dispatched,” Hulbert explains. “Fortunately, we have a very good team, and everyone is willing to get stuck in and get us through this tough time.”

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Adapt, pivot, or hold on for dear life. The options for companies in this crisis can boil down to these three strategies. As the UK enters week five of lockdown, we talked to some of the ‘small ships’ helping the UK economy adapt to the Covid-19 crisis.

Thursday 9 to Wednesday 15 April

First stop (virtually, obvs) Kent where the Copper Rivet Distillery is now making alcohol hand sanitiser. Co-founder Stephen Russell says: “Our business sells Dockyard Gin and Vela Vodka to pubs, bars and restaurants, which are now all closed, so this new sanitiser product allows the distillery to help the wider community, protect distillery jobs, and perhaps creatively develop a totally new range of products.”

The transition hasn’t been simple. “Achieving the right chemical formula is not easy,” says Russell. “By itself, high-strength alcohol could hurt hands by opening up cracks and encouraging germs to attack. So the solution’s formula needs to comply with World Health Organisation guidance. Together the compounds achieve the efficacy of the alcohol, while also being kind to the hands.”

The new product, Russell's Alcohol Hand Rub, is now being supplied to the Met police amongst others.

Essex-based manufacturer Blackman & White is one of the many ingenious firms switching to making personal protective equipment. The company makes cutting machines – ideal for its new mission.

Eiko White, director at Blackman & White, says: “We have all seen the terrible stories of our heroic doctors, nurses and care workers fighting the Covid-19 virus without the right PPE. It’s heartbreaking and we wanted to try to do what we can to help in some small way.”

Blackman & White is now producing 300 visors every day at the Street Industrial Estate in Maldon, where its own-brand Orion and Genesis V machines use dual motion control, state-of-the-art routers and lasers for precision cutting. But there are challenges ahead.

White explains: “We can easily make 300 per day, but we are struggling to source the right quality material – this is where we need help; 1mm polycarbonate or 1mm acetate are the big stumbling blocks. Our customers, who have been quick to come forward and offer their assistance, have been making do with alternatives, but supplies are drying up and, inherently, the costs are climbing.”

Corby-based point of sale display-maker DisplayMode.co.uk is also making visors: 10,000 a day. Managing director Leon Edwards invested £40,000 to buy new materials, and switched production from a sense of moral duty.

Edwards explains: “In just over a week, we’ve gone from looking as though we might not be able to continue as a business to having a clear purpose. This is categorically not-for-profit and is all about making a difference."

He sees his company as part of the Dunkirk-style rescue bringing help at the last minute. But says it will be a tough ride: “Many smaller UK manufacturing companies like us are taking steps to help in this terrible crisis, but it’s near-impossible to get through to the people we can help via the government portals and so you hear of bigger firms such as Dyson and Mercedes F1 doing their bit, but not the independents. We are the ‘little ships’ that the government has been crying out for. Face shields are just one type of PPE, but a really vital one in the face of what is the biggest crisis our generation has seen.”

Finally to Rays Ice Cream, based in Swindon, which has closed its parlours but is compensating by selling ice cream direct to homes via couriers with PPE and social distancing.

Owner Hadi Brooke: “We decided to trial online deliveries and plot how that might work in terms of logistics. It's gone mad. It helps that the weather has been good, people are at home and they have limited ways in which they can 'treat' themselves at the moment. We are currently delivering four days a week, orders coming in every day.”

“In a small way we are bringing joy to the doors of people who have, quite rightly, limited movement at the moment and that's wonderful.”

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As the Covid-19 pandemic took grip, I pledged to talk to a different business leader or manager every day, to discover their management challenges, responses and workarounds. I’ll keep up this diary for as long as the crisis lasts.

Matthew Rock

Wednesday 8 April

Today I’ve been to Devon.

I wish. Actually it was a call with Stuart Brocklehurst, CEO of the online procurement platform Applegate. It’s an impressive home-grown UK tech company based near Barnstaple that’s worked closely with Exeter University’s Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. 35 people. Lots of in-house tech capability. A young team, including a cohort of terrific Chartered Manager Degree Apprentices who help drive the business.

Applegate sits at the intersection between buyers and sellers, so it offers a glimpse of what’s happening in the economy right now. Brocklehurst explains that they’re seeing an unprecedented, ‘unlimited’ demand for certain types of equipment right now, particularly personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser, machinery and spare parts related to combating the Covid-19 crisis. These requests, says Brocklehurst, are coming from nursing homes, councils, surgeries, food manufacturers and are often directed to Applegate by MPs around the country. “This week alone we’ve arranged shipment of millions of items of PPE to those who needed it and I had an email from one MP saying ‘sorry to keep coming back to you, you’re just so much more efficient than anyone in government’.”

Why is this happening? Because so many traditional supply chains have been disrupted by the crisis. UK companies that may previously have sourced goods and parts from Italy may find those unavailable; even if they can find products in China it’s often impossible to get anything on air freight.

To help meet this demand, Applegate has created a new, free Covid-19 supply hub, and Brocklehurst encourages other manufacturers and suppliers to make use of it if they want to get their products and services to the front line.

Brocklehurst is well networked in the south-west business community, so I took the chance to ask him what’s happening in the region. There are many familiar themes: the situation is extremely challenging, though food manufacturers see their business up; many sectors are furloughing staff; others are struggling with staff shortages with people self-isolating; cash flow is the key concern for everyone.

The south-west has many businesses in the tourism, leisure and hospitality sector that is pretty much closed right now. Brocklehurst makes an interesting warning that, even if the lockdown ends over the summer, these companies will have missed a vital revenue-earning period. His fear is that, even if they’re able to open this summer, they won’t have accumulated enough cash to make it through next winter.

Tuesday 7 April

An old friend calls. Let’s call him Laurenzo. He’s an experienced marketeer and recently joined a high-street retailer. He was due to start two weeks ago, but was told almost as soon as he took the job that he’d have to sit tight for a couple of weeks as the organisation geared itself up for the COVID-19 storm. “To be honest I expected to be told that I wouldn’t be needed,” he says.

Not a bit of it. Yesterday (Monday) was his first day, but the only thing is, he’s been asked to do a new, totally different job at the group. The role he was recruited for isn’t a priority right now, so Laurenzo found himself asked to work in a different part of the business, for a new boss, and doing a role that he’s never done before.

He’s part of a giant process of redeployment that’s happening in organisations right across the world. It’s necessary because, while lots of commercial activities have tanked, others are going gangbusters. Organisations are having to shift resources to where they’re needed – and fast. We’ve put together some guidance on rapid redeployment and we’d be super-interested to hear from other organisations are redeploying people.

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My manager of the day tells me why it's never too early to start planning exit strategies...while remaining upbeat

Monday 6 April

Another eventful weekend. The sun shone. The British population hesitated about when to go out. Sir Keir Starmer was voted in by a large margin to become the new leader of the Labour party.

It’s a tricky time to be an opposition leader. He will need to be constructive in his criticism while still supportive of the national effort to combat the Coronavirus.

One of Sir Keir’s first calls is for a debate about the country’s ‘exit strategy’ from the lockdown. Some will feel this is too early given that the Covid-19 crisis has probably not yet peaked.

Jeannette Lichner believes that businesses need to be thinking about their own exit strategies right now, otherwise they run the risk of being left behind when the economy opens up again. Jeannette sits on a number of business and charity boards such as Miller Insurance and the financial crime ratings company Elucidate. She also coaches executives. As such, she has a close-up view of how senior leaders are meeting the Covid-19 challenge.

The best boardrooms and executives are of course focused on the ‘here and now’, she says, but they’re also keeping a close eye on what’s going on outside the organisation. “As a board member, it’s your job to keep your organisation ahead of the curve,” she insists.

“Make sure post-crisis opportunities are on the agenda. How will your organisation adjust once we go 'back to normal'? What has the organisation learned that it wants to keep – agile working is a big one. What new business opportunities are there? Where have we excelled? What are our competitors doing?”

These are challenging questions, and leaders already have a lot on their plate, but Jeannette warns that many organisations risk getting sidestepped if they don’t think hard about the future now. It’s more than likely that things won’t return to normal; in which case, what’s the strategy for your new, altered organisation?

Interestingly, she doesn’t believe we will see a sudden, supercharged economic rebound. Instead, she thinks it will be ‘messy’. People have been scared, she says, and she doesn’t anticipate a sudden rush back to normal life.

Jeannette admits that she misses the bustle of city life – she lives in west Sussex and her visits to clients are of course off limits – but, like almost all the managers and leaders I’ve been speaking to, she’s determined to stay upbeat. Other managers should do the same:

“Remain positive. Moments of crisis are great leadership opportunities,” she says. She encourages leaders to influence their own people to step up. Consistent, clear, pragmatic communications are crucial. “And think about how you can treat your employees respectively – treat them as grown-ups and show empathy. Help them look even stronger to their teams.” And a final thought: share leadership lessons from articles that you’re reading – your people don't have time!

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Two weeks into lockdown, how are boardrooms responding? I spoke to the one of UK's leading board experts and he told me, intriguingly, that new behaviours and dynamics are already emerging...

Thursday 2 April

Today I spoke to Patrick Dunne ahead of his webinar with Ann Francke next Thursday, 9th April. We touched upon a few of the key points he’ll delve further into in the discussion. He’s probably the UK’s leading expert when it comes to boards and boardroom dynamics. He’s a CMI Companion, too. There’s a fair bit of public debate right now about the importance of maintaining parliamentary scrutiny of government during the Covid-19 crisis, but what about scrutiny of corporate executives? Is there a danger in this lockdown period, with some regulation loosened, that boardrooms might let poor behaviour run amok? There have been one or two examples recently of some pretty shoddy business behaviour.

Patrick insists that these are very much the exception. “Most boards I know have acted with pace, sense and are focused on making sure their people are safe, their customers are served and their suppliers don't get wiped out.”

On Tuesday this week Patrick chaired a session for 75 private equity-backed company executives to advise them on finance, people and sustainability. Two things stood out: one, that all were trying to do the right thing; two, that none had yet been able successfully to access the government’s furloughing scheme.

The Covid-19 crisis took hold very quickly, and Patrick is already seeing some new leadership behaviours emerge. Organisations are increasing the frequency of board meetings, trying to find the right balance of supporting their execs through the toughest period most of them will have encountered and providing proper oversight.

“They have also had to accept that given the speed with which decisions have had to have been made with incomplete and uncertain information means that there will be mistakes and things that go wrong.”

And, says Patrick, “I can’t think of one board where they aren’t bringing in new perspectives from non-board members.” He believes that those organisations such as Gucci, Interbrand and the Financial Times that have ‘next-gen boards’ alongside their traditional boards will give themselves an advantage in the future.

The profile of boardrooms may change, too. “It’s inescapable, given what’s happened and the effects it’s having, that you wouldn’t have enhanced digital insight on your board in future.” There will also be those board members recruited as a perfect for the strategy before the Covid-19 crisis who now no longer fit. Most important, this period will shine a light on the real star performers. “You’ll probably find out who your next chair and CEO is through this!”

Patrick concludes: “This has been a shock to the system and will have profound effects on the way people do things. It isn't a normal situation so boards and leaders have to behave differently. But that doesn't mean that they have to stop behaving well.”

This is, of course, a flavour of what’s to come in next Thursday’s live webinar. Why not check it out for yourself? It’s sure to be a lively and worthwhile discussion.

Wednesday 1 April

I spoke with Russell Harlow, head of global resourcing at TMA World, about the behaviours managers need to adapt in this suddenly changed world of work. He was clear: managers don’t need new skills, they need to dial-up the ones they already have.

“The basic principles of managing a team and leading a team still apply, but how you apply it matters now more than ever before, because you're now carrying out those fundamental skills via technology.You don’t need to completely overhaul the way you manage your teams, but you need to be working differently in certain ways.”

He talks about context awareness – that is, having a fluid enough management style to adapt quickly to individuals in your team. You need to know who needs and appreciates regular check-ins and who you just need to leave alone as they get on with it. Especially when you were co-located and are now virtual, this fluidity and context awareness around your team’s working habits is vital. “Don't just make assumptions that the way that you like to communicate is gonna fit for everyone,” he says.

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Even in the middle of a terrible pandemic, many managers are using the time to learn and develop new skills. How can you and your team best learn in a lockdown? I spoke to teacher and Chartered Manager Benjy Rickman...

Monday 30 March

Benjy Rickman is an unusual combination: teacher at an ‘outstanding’-rated school and a Chartered Manager. After his school, King David High School Manchester, closed down due to the spread of the Coronavirus, Benjy started producing daily videos to encourage the children to continue their studies; he’s also done videos to keep spirits up among his team of fellow teachers. He does them early in the mornings, with the birds singing in the background, and they’ve made a huge impression on students and colleagues.

I asked Benjy about how managers could make best use of this strange period of isolation – and how they should encourage their teams to use this time to learn.

Benjy - of course! - responded in the form of a video. So here’s his advice to other managers. The key thing: role model learning yourself. Show that you’re committed to developing yourself. It’ll rub off on others.

Over to you, Benjy…

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While it’s hard to generalise about a national ‘management mood’, I’m picking up a sense that managers and leaders are moving into a new phase.

Thursday 26 March

Some contours to this crisis are beginning to emerge. Last week talking to managers and leaders, it was all about crisis planning. This week the words I’m hearing most are ‘action plan’. The Covid-19 pandemic is grave and biting deep into all aspects of our daily lives, but organisations and managers must look at their operations and ongoing viability. One of the most common words used by Chancellor Rishi Sunak when outlining his new intervention scheme for the self-employed is ‘operationalise’. Yes, he seems to suggest, this is an awesomely huge socialist-style intervention by a Conservative government delivered at breakneck speed, but I’m sure as hell going to make sure it functions properly.

On a similar note, we’re hearing of dramatic resource reallocation taking place in many organisations as demand shifts. Some people are busier than ever while others are twiddling their thumbs. Managers are again having to step up, identify where the demand is high, realign objectives and repurpose staff to where they’re needed. We’ll be returning to this subject in detail next week. If you’ve got experience of suddenly having to reallocate resources, please let us know. Please email us at editorial@managers.org.uk

A related issue is that huge numbers of people want to volunteer. What does this mean and look like in reality in your organisation? We’d be very keen to hear – same email.

One manager who exemplifies all this is Aaron Giudice. He’s a Chartered Manager and deputy managing director at Sowga, a business that operates within the UK facilities management market. Basically Sowga, which is based in West Sussex, maintains the mechanical, electrical and public health services within the commercial real estate sector (large multi-tenanted office buildings). Right now with the country in lockdown, most of those offices are empty.

But Aaron is still on it. There’s a business to manage, people’s jobs to protect and clients to service, albeit at a reduced level. “At the very least we must maintain the essential security, safety and legislative compliance of the buildings,” he explains. This all needs to be done without using public transport and maintaining social distancing.

In terms of the business as a whole, Sowga is fortunate to have “several excellent long-term clients who have confirmed that they will continue to pay our contract fees in full during this crisis, which should allow us in turn to continue paying our employees.” However, with the immediate future of this crisis uncertain, Aaron acknowledges that “we cannot completely guarantee that no employees will need to be furloughed, although we will avoid this as much as possible.”

Aaron has drawn deeply on his management training and Chartered Manager experiences through the tough past couple of weeks. He is determined to stay calm which, in turn, means he’ll think more clearly and make better management decisions.

These are some of the management competencies he’ll be using to help him work around and ride out this crisis.

Adaptability. For example, being prepared and able to change my approach to everyday tasks and process and encouraging colleagues to do the same, to suit the changing working landscape during this crisis.

Communication strategy. For example, utilising technology such as video conferencing, Microsoft teams and WhatsApp groups to ensure I can remain connected with colleagues and important communication can still be achieved.

Organisational change. For example, accepting and embracing the present changes to my working environment and encouraging colleagues to do the same. Try to follow the same routine timings as if you were still heading to the office.

Human resource planning. For example, planning resource requirements and approaches to both maintain the required service delivery whilst minimising risk to our colleagues.

Emotional intelligence. Managing my own emotions during this time of crisis and understanding the emotions of colleagues to ensure a culture of support and guidance which will see us through this crisis.

Diverse thinking. "Many heads are better than one” so I’ll be including colleagues in key discussions to achieve a diverse thought process and the generation of different ideas on how we can manage various challenges during this crisis.

As Aaron says: “My mission during this crisis is quite simple – to protect our business and the people within it, to ensure we have a healthy business and healthy workforce able to pick up where we left off before this crisis struck!”

Wednesday 25 March

Blimey, I’m having a lot of video calls! They’re great in many ways, encouraging regular and succinct dialogue. They’re also curiously energy-sapping by the end of the day. I will admit though that it’s quite interesting to see inside colleagues’ homes – apart from the clever ones who’ve figured out how to use ‘blur background’.

Today I spoke to Jo Owen, the entrepreneur and author of Resilience (Ten habits to sustain high performance) and Global Teams. Jo was at home in Kensington. He lives right next to a couple of central London hotels that have got zero occupancy. It’s eerily quiet.

Jo is the kind of man you want to talk to in a crisis. His entrepreneurial background means that his first instinct is to look for the positive. Starting next week he’ll be writing a series of blogs for CMI called ‘How to have a good crisis’. Here’s just a flavour of Jo’s can-do energy: “ Leaders are like tea bags,” he observes, “you only know how good they are when they land in hot water. COVID19 is the perfect teabag test, for you and your team.”

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We have entered the lockdown days. In the second instalment of our diary of 'Every day leadership', we meet a manager in the frontline of the construction industry, wondering whether sites will close and what to do with his employees

Tuesday 24 March

Last night prime minister Boris Johnson made his extraordinary message to the nation, imploring them to stay at home unless totally necessary.

We are in lockdown.

I haven’t spoken to my old friend Rob in years, but now feels like a good time to get in touch. Rob (not his real name) runs a small business in the construction trade. He’s got a full-time workforce of nine people based out of a workshop in Essex. They do high-quality specialist work on sites mainly across the south of England. He also uses a handful of long-serving self-employed contractors.

I sent Rob text. “Is the situation now clear?” I asked.

Here’s his response:

“Still clear as mud, getting calls this morning asking where we are…

“Initially last night we told everyone to stay at home today so no one working. I am talking at 9am with the other Directors to work out what were are planning to do ongoing.

“We will probably try to continue on those sites where we can be sure of safe conditions , again no use of public transport. At the moment we are still not sure of 80% wage grant so all are off on unpaid leave.”

Monday 23 March

Rob was working from home when we spoke. He set himself up to do this last year and he’s seen a big spike in his own productivity. Today, though, he’s totally confused. “I thought everything was meant to be shut down, but all the construction sites are open,” he says. His team is currently working on seven sites in central and outer London.

For their personal safety, Rob’s told them that they shouldn’t be travelling on the tube, so he’s ferrying them around in the company van instead. He can’t tell his sub-contractors what to do, though, so they’re still using the London tube and train system, potentially spreading the Coronavirus and endangering others. Twitter is alive with images of packed sites and trains. There’s growing concern about what effect this will have on NHS and other key workers. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick is pleading with the construction industry to do its bit. The hashtag #StayAtHomeSaveLives is trending.

What Rob really wants is some clear direction, even if it’s that all sites should close. That would mean he could properly think about moving his full-time team into the new ‘furloughing’ arrangement under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. He needs to be able to show that his guys can’t work. Right now, with the construction industry still open, he has to continue operating as normal - whatever normal means these days.

I’ve also been speaking to a COO in the media business. Her company works partly in the travel sector, which has totally shut down. So she’s been looking into the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme over the weekend. “It’s what we needed to stop redundancies,” she says, “and I’ve got our lawyers looking at it.” But the details about the scheme are very thin right now – unsurprisingly given the speed with which it’s been introduced – and there are a huge number of questions still unanswered. Does the £2,500pm salary that the government has pledged to meet include National Insurance Contributions? What if people want to take holiday while they’re ‘furloughed’? We’ll be looking at these questions later in the week.

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Part one: Managers Stepping up to the Crisis

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes grip, I pledge to talk to a different business leader or manager every day, to discover their management challenges, responses and workarounds. I’ll keep up this diary for as long as the crisis lasts. Here’s part one

Matthew Rock

Thursday 19 March

10am. Just back from my daily conversation with a manager. Today I was able to do it in person. Yay! I met up with a senior director at a TV production company at a coffee shop in west London. We got a coffee to go, then walked and talked down by the Thames – at a two-metre distance of course.

On the business challenges right now, he’s got solid advice. First priority: stabilise the base,. Then start looking for new angles.

So for example, there’s barely any TV production taking place right now, but my contact’s company recently realised that they were close to completing a show that has yet to be sold. The value of this to the big broadcasters will have gone up significantly, given how little fresh content is being generated. So… tada! …. An enhanced commercial opportunity.

This kind of opportunity-spotting and diversification is going on all around the country. The software company Zoho just launched its Small Business Emergency Subscription Assistance Program (ESAP) and waived the first three months’ fee. Manufacturers are looking to switch into different product lines that are needed. Food retailers are supporting frontline workers with free or discounted food. Hotels are converting to hospitals. Now may not feel like a moment to pivot, but for many it has to be.

Expect to see some really creative thinking and programming coming through in the next few weeks. A lot of broadcasters are looking at formats where they can make use of talent in different and unusual locations, such as Gary Lineker’s kitchen. Don’t be surprised to see a flurry of programming about lifting people’s spirits, reconnecting to overcome isolation, learning from home. We also talked about the BBC; surely its role at the centre of UK life won’t ever be questioned again…?

A couple of final thoughts from today’s manager:

  • Try to have all-staff hangouts as well as those one-to-ones and team meetings. A lot of people I’m talking to are bringing the whole organisation together regularly too. And the ‘5 at 5’ is becoming A Thing. Five-minute end of the day catch-ups.
  • Don’t call your split teams the A Team and B Team. Who wants to be in the B Team?! How about the Green Team and the White Team, say? That’d work for Celtic supporters…

For more ways CMI can help you and your teams cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 outbreak, check out these articles:

Wednesday 18 March

10.30am. Today’s was a long call. Dr Michael McDonagh CMgr is a former senior Met Police detective who ran protective security during the London 2012 Olympics. He’s worked in counter-terrorism, murder, kidnapping and countless other extreme situations. Today he runs his own risk and crisis firm, 6E Consulting, that advises corporates and international sporting bodies. He’s the kind of man you turn to in a crisis. We had a lot to talk about.

We talked first about the Avian flu virus that hit Asia, mainly, from 2005. At the time the predictions for the UK were grim, with the expectation that up to 60% of the police force might be affected. Michael was the lead for the Met Police team, developing contingency plans.

An important thing the police did then was to develop a “previous history skills test matrix.” Put simply, this was a 50,000-line database detailing staff and police officers’ former roles. This meant that, if a large proportion of the police force was put out of action, they could be replaced by people with relevant qualifications or previous experience. “Even if they were now a senior officer, we knew who was a Level 1 driver or a public order specialist,” says Michael.

Today, in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, he suggests that organisations run the same exercise in the background. “Find out who could step into a role if the current lead falls sick.”

Michael’s biggest concern right now – aside from getting his son home safely from university – is that organisations will find themselves reliant on crisis management plans that aren’t up to the job. “Most plans tend to be linear, based methodologies designed to survive a number of simplistic or commonplace events such as IT failure and cyber crime.” Covid-19 is quite different.

We’ll share Michael’s full insights for the CMI community in another blog, but here are some key points:

  • Every company, no matter what size, should develop business continuity and crisis management plans and capabilities to deal with the Covid-19 issue. But make sure these plans are flexible.
  • Hold business continuity/crisis meetings daily. Keep an eye on updates from the government, medical sources, industry bodies etc.
  • Sense-check every aspect of your organisation – HR, Talent Management, IT, comms, third-party suppliers, supply chains, stakeholders, sponsors, transport etc.
  • Assess what vulnerabilities you have and how to address them effectively – ie, risk reduction strategies, your response capability, what contingencies you already have in place and is your recovery strategy still valid, usable and realistic?

But Michael encourages business leaders not to overreact. He reminds us that things constantly change and to be mindful to “not decide on a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. The government has put together a £330bn package to support businesses, so let’s hope it’s enough to preserve companies and jobs for the long term.

Monday 16 March

Just got off the phone with Nadia Howell, owner-manager of L’Aquila, a west London-based food supplier of speciality vegetable ingredients into the food services and retail sectors.

When the Coronavirus spread to northern Italy where L’Aquila has three main suppliers, Nadia realised she’d need to act fast. As we speak, all three factories are open and are doing whatever it takes to remain so.

Nadia’s strategy has been to get in as many advance orders as possible – but without compromising her own cash-flow. Hers is only a small company, with ten employees. This is where good, long-term relationships come into play. By being quick on it, Nadia has bumped up her stocks so that she’s now two months ahead of where she’d normally be. By offering to store the additional supplies, she’s held payment terms to the pre-existing schedules. “We’ve made a lot of headway very quickly,” she says.

Tuesday 17 March

I’m getting loads of feedback to my post on LinkedIn about the 1988 postal workers’ strike and how that changed attitudes to communication forever. It was the moment we moved to mass adoption of fax machines for communication, and we never looked back. I reckon the same will happen now for working practices.

Andrew Try agrees. His company ComXo provides “21st-century switchboard” services. Demand is going through the roof as the Coronavirus spreads and the UK government encourages the population to avoid non-essential contact and travel.

“People are invoking working practices they’d been thinking about but never imagined they would actually need to implement,” says Andrew. He’s receiving regular calls from executives in global corporates frantically asking, “can you switch over our whole system by tomorrow?!”

The company that’s most ahead of the curve on all this is PwC, says Andrew. They’ve been rethinking their whole office strategy for several years. “They’re asking themselves: why make people traipse across to the city every day?” Andrew explains that PwC’s 30 offices around the UK are already primarily used for meeting clients and collaboration.

Saturday 14 March

My wife and children did a Parkrun. There probably won’t be any more for a while. I walked the dogs with Kate Dafter, who runs her own health food shop in west London. The past few days have been overwhelming for Kate. The day before (Friday) she’d done double her usual turnover as people panic-bought pasta and provisions. “It’s mad and I’m dead on my feet.” As a small business she can’t just call in extra staff to help cover, so she and the team are doing double the usual workload.

Thursday 12 March

A senior management team meeting followed by an all-staffer. We’re moving to homeworking. The crisis management team (codename, Think Cobra) at Think is determined to get ahead of the escalating Covid-19 crisis. If we pre-empt government advice, we’ll be up and running for when any lockdown happens. There’s bound to be lots of operational snagging to sort out, so let’s get ahead of the curve.

Late this afternoon a rather subdued prime minister Boris Johnson emerges from the official Cobra meeting to announce that many British people will lose loved ones before their time.

It’s the right time to change working practices.

Image: Unsplash